Merchant King

18 – A New Party?

Marian left Market Street behind and boldly made her way into a smaller, more upperclass thoroughfare called Singsong Avenue. Unlike the very broad main shopping district, wide enough for carts and wagons to access it, Singsong was far narrower and only about six of seven shops long. The atmosphere was quaint and sophisticated, quieter, with tall, leafy trees overhead providing shade and dampening noise. 

Perched on branches in those trees were a variety of mechanical songbirds. They had been enchanted to sing in harmony and formed a whimsical chorus as you walked. Couples sat on benches underneath, just listening or, in once case, picnicking. A fountain in center of the street housed a small stage with a white chair and upon it rested a woman singing soft ballads.

Never having been here before, she knew not where to go. But each little storefront, made of stone or dark wood, featured a large picture window that was tastefully decorated with upscale merchandise: clothing, furniture, jewelry and more. And she chose the first one with magical items on display. 

The two hundred and fifty gold, give or take, in her bank account made her somewhat rich, relatively speaking. Most people her level were eating what they caught and spending a few silver here and there, but mostly saving as much as they could. Few stayed in inns, let alone the best in town. 

By luck and a little bit of suffering—read, emotional trauma—she had come into a bit of fortune and had decided to splurge on herself. She wouldn’t spend everything, but she would get herself something that would give her an edge when she returned to adventuring instead of riding the tailcoats of guys who she’d thought were cool but turned out to be anything but. She swanned into the establishment. 

A thin man in a coffee-coloured suit, his hair tinged with gray on the sides, turned from where he was delicately inscribing the back of a chest plate that was resting on a raised display. He took one look at what she was wearing and seemed ready to say, my dear, what is someone like you doing in a place like this. To his credit, and her relief, he said nothing of the kind. He smiled kindly, and it seemed honest, so she liked him at once. “How can I help you today?”

“I’m…just going to browse,” she decided, suddenly too nervous to interact with him. She saw a wireframe mannequin with a red robe on it and a few more robes hanging behind it. Making a beeline for it, she appraised the outfits. They were standard fare for magic users. That is, they were not form fitting at all, just roomy and comfortable. Sort of boring, if she were honest. 

She saw labels and read about the enchantments on each: waterproof, fire resistant, immune to stains. Then she saw the prices and nearly gagged on her own tongue. The cheapest robe was over a thousand gold. She deliberately pulled her unwashed hands away from the expensive fabric and realized that she was not rich, not at all, not even a little bit, not when it came to the purchase of magical gear. 

A bit more unsure of herself, she backed up. 

The shop attendant, or perhaps the enchanter behind these goods, turned his smile on her once more. “I apologize. I cram so much into this space that it’s no doubt overwhelming and difficult to find what you’re really looking for. Please, allow me to at least point you in the right direction?”

Would that be out the door before she was broke? She firmed her grip on herself. No, she wanted something magical. She had the money, she just had to be smart with it. Nodding, she very carefully made her way around the array of artifacts, making absolutely sure not to accidentally touch and break anything at all. Like that breathtaking, stylized bronze orb that would probably magnify her super-weak fan of flames spell enough that it would match the breath of a young red dragon. For a mere half a million gold. Just, you know, a trifle.

She wondered if Hadiin would ever be able to afford something like that. Or if she would.  Or if she might if they’d stayed…no. She wasn’t going to think about that. She was on her own now. Or on the lookout for a new team. A proper one. 

He waited in front of the counter for her approach. “So. A Lady in need of protective ornaments? Looking for a gift? Or perhaps you’re an adventurer?”

“The last, yes.” No doubt he’d guessed as much from her appearance. She had heard the capital in Lady and it had been very kind of him to suggest it, but she was no lady. Not yet. 

“You class, if I might ask?”

“Dragon sorceress.”

“Ah! Uncommon, but reputed to be very powerful. Slower learning curve than with the pre-formulated spell work utilized by wizards and mages, and without the emotional component used by witches. And yet, history tells us they have conquered nations.”

“Well, I just started. Um, something practical might be smart. Do you have…bags of holding?”

“Of course. From pouches to chests.”

“What do the less expensive ones cost?”

“A pouch of holding, which would have the internal size of about a large backpack, starts at eight hundred gold.”

“Hmm. Maybe not. Do you have wands?”

“Of course!” He waved her to a display cabinet against one wall. 

She studied the array. They had been designed from many different woods and were laced with all kinds of magical stones, runes, and gems. A black one caught her eye. It was eighteen thousand gold. She kept looking. At the bottom were a few plainer wands and they were actually affordable. She leaned in to examine them. 

“If I may?” he broke in.

“Yes?”

“Wands are for finely tuned spellcasting, typical of the other magic user classes. Sorcerers generally don’t make much use of them.” He nodded to the side. “Perhaps I could make a suggestion?”

She she breathed out in relief and hoped that it didn’t show on her face. “Please.” It was silly and unlike her, but she felt out of her depth. Which was a shame because this was the type of place where she’d like to feel at home one day. All this magical gear did kind of feel like a dragon’s hoard, didn’t it? She bit her lip to keep from giggling at the thought. Dragons don’t giggle. 

He put a display pedestal between them. Inside were all kinds of jewelry items, from bracelets and earrings to piercings and rings. There were also stand-alone stones and gems. “Here we have a variety of items a fiery sorceress such as yourself might make better use of. These, for example, are mana wells. They help draw mana into your body, replenishing it faster, as well as providing storage that adds to your own. You can cast more magic, and recover faster. Excellent for power casters such as yourself.” He leaned forward and winked. “You can throw a lot more fireballs.”

She grinned. Then tried to stop herself and couldn’t.

“Here,” he continued, “are the most basic of caster foci. These don’t have the pinpoint finesse of wands. Rather than focus to a thread, they focus to a narrow beam and in doing so, unlike a wand, amplify the output via resonance. For more powerful fireballs.”

“That could be useful too.” She felt quite torn between the idea of more fireballs and more powerful fireballs. This guy new his customers!

There are also plenty of items with one-shot spells that can be cast without any mana yourself, great for emergency use or for spells you aren’t familiar with. And I have all kinds of protective devices. They can stop a non-magical arrow once, defeat poison or many diseases.”

She took a big breath, still kind of lost. “Ok, screw it. I have about two hundred gold. Can I afford anything here?”

He laughed, delicately and charmingly so. “Of course! Now I am not and never have been an adventurer outside of books, though I deal with many. And I don’t know your own class all that well. However, in my opinion, if you are as yet lower level, consider a mana well.”

“Why that?”

“You’re trying to increase your power, trying to level up, correct? I think protective items, well, it’s too soon for that kind of spending. And being more powerful means being able to defeat greater enemies, true. But simply being able to cast a lot more magic means doing a lot more levelling, especially for someone just starting out.”

She nodded, seeing his point. 

He pulled a pair of cute earrings out and displayed them for her. They were simple gold hooks with ruby teardrops. “For the average magic user at level ten, these would give perhaps four or five times the amount of mana they natively carry.”

Her eyes flew wide. “Are you serious? I’m only level five.”

He chuckled. “Then they will offer you considerably more than that. Now, of course, at a certain point, they become less valuable as you yourself level up and expand your own, natural mana reserve. But I think you will find them an excellent investment for a long time to come. And then, if they are undamaged, they are easy to resell or pass along as a gift.”

She hesitated only a second. The red was really pretty and her colour and she was wild at the idea of levelling up super fast with all that extra magic at her fingertips. Literally. “I’ll take them.”

Of course, she wore them immediately. And vowed to never take them off. The tingle of mana flowing through her and into the enchanted rubies thrilled her and completely eradicated the ugly feelings she’d been bogged down with earlier. Retail therapy might be dangerous, but she’d focused hers on a very practical purchase and had astutely, or luckily, left herself with a good fifty gold to spare. More than enough to live comfortably until she started making money as an adventurer, if she was smart with it. 

Her new goal? Enough for a proper bag of holding. About two thousand gold should do it. 

Inhaling the fresh air of the late afternoon, she bothered a guardsman on the corner of Market Street for directions to the Adventurers Guild. 

The guild hall was a former tavern and stables and no doubt saw a lot of use for it has a well-worn look to it, from the tarnished brass handle on a pinewood door that had cracks from being kicked open too many times, to the round tables and stools, many of which had been patched multiple times. 

The tavern was still there, of course, and adventurers were already filling the place up, a buffet of different classes, though most were warrior-like. Serving wenches in yellow shirts and burgundy skirts delivered mugs of ale and other beverages. A lane at the back had a target painted at one end and two rogue-types were throwing daggers—blindfolded. A poker game in the corner had players who looked so drained they must have been playing there from at least the previous night and some time before. 

On the left was a short counter next to a billboard. A young man and a middle-aged woman sat behind the counter, dealing with two different adventuring parties. Both wore green uniforms and friendly expressions. 

Marian stopped just inside the door and stepped to the side, giving her time to survey the crowd. She didn’t know anyone, having arrived in town with Hadiin and being too low level to have had any real field experience where she might have teamed up with anyone. It wasn’t that she was feeling shy, just a bit out of place, it being her first time here. 

Seeing the quest board, she investigated the kind of jobs on offer. These were all bronze-rank quests, which was all that she’d be able to qualify for. There was another goblin-slaying quest, but much bigger this time, including a chieftain. Help harvesting a field of magical flowers while fending off giant bees. Investigating sounds heard at a nearby cemetery. A standing kingdom bounty from the capital on elf ears, ten silver per pair. Tracking down someone’s missing cat. 

When she saw the reward amounts listed, she couldn’t help but feel the wind drain out of her sails a bit. After the last big payday, everything felt tiny in comparison. Seeing the prices for really good magical artifacts had made it even worse. She’d be earning silver for any job, rarely gold. And none of these were dungeon quests or anything with potential treasure involved, so she couldn’t look forward to improving on her new artifact collection. It was almost enough to make her regret leaving Hadiin. 

Dammit. Why did she keep thinking about him? She forced him out of her head and returned to the task at hand.

The quests didn’t pay well at this level. That was fine. The money didn’t matter. It would be nice, but it would come later. Right now, she needed experience. She’d spent days following him around instead of in fights and using her magic. It was time to invest in herself and make up for lost time. And with these earrings, she was gonna do it fast. 

She looked around the room again. She could go solo and gain experience faster that way, but she had to admit it would be dangerous. She wasn’t thrilled at the idea of teaming up with anyone else again, but it would be practical. 

A few Adventurer Wanted ads were posted on the wall. Healer, tank, tank, tank, healer. Hmm. Nobody was looking for a damage dealer. Probably because they were as common as rats. Everyone wanted the glory, not a role with responsibility. She waited in line for one of the guild staff in hopes they might point her in a direction. 

The female clerk pushed her triangular glasses up her once-broken nose. “Hi there. I don’t recognize you. Are you new? Have you come to register?”

“Oh. Right. Of course.” 

The woman slid over a glass ball on a low stand, then brought out a sheet of paper. “First, I’ll get you to fill out the paper here. Then we’ll assess your mana reservoir. Are you wearing any magical items?”

“Yes. I just bought them.”

“If you’ll just remove them and set them aside when you’re ready?”

She dipped a quill in an ink pot and filled out the form. A drop of her blood on the bottom magically sealed the info as the truth. Removing the earrings but keeping them right in front of her on the counter, she laid a hand on the hand on the glass ball. 

A shock of static electricity passed into her, then snapped back out almost immediately after. Cobalt blue coils of smoke appeared inside the ball and danced around each other. 

The clerk nodded. “That’s a deep, rich blue. Looks like you’re a bit above average then.” She smiled and jotted something down on the sheet of paper. 

Marian felt a bit smug hearing that. Above average. Nice. She rehung the earrings and wondered just how much mana she had with these on. She could hardly wait to test it out. 

The woman laid a thin bronze plate on the counter. She flicked a wand and Marian’s name and fingerprint appeared on the face of it. “This will be your official identification. Please keep it with you at all times. They are used to identify bodies in the field should tragedy strike.” She was upfront about that. “You will start as Bronze rank. Work your way up to Silver and Gold with experience and ability. The right tools for the job can help with that.” She pointed at the earrings. 

“Are there any teams looking for a magic user by chance?”

“Not that I know of. I’m sorry, dear. If it’s not posted on the board, you’ll have to ask around.”

“OK. Thanks anyway.” She took her bronze tag and retreated from the counter so that someone else could take her place. But she hadn’t gone far when someone called out to her and jogged over from a table. 

He was a young man, her age, good looking. He wore chainmail and carried a mace. Two archers and another warrior type sat at the table behind him. He waved at her and gave a quick nod. “Hey. Magic user?”

“Yeah. You looking for one?”

“We are. Why class?”

“Sorcerer.”

His face fell. “Ah. Never mind. We’re looking for someone with utility spells, someone with a range of things they can do besides power.”

“Oh. But more power can’t hurt, can it?”

“We’ve got lots. Sorry. I’ll let you go.” He went back to the table, shaking his head at the others. 

She felt disappointed at that. But she wasn’t about to give up. Scanning the room, she saw a group of guys in half plate. Her jaw dropped. They were all gorgeous. Like, the hottest guys she’d ever seen. Beautiful faces, some slightly feminine, others chiseled perfection. Mouthwatering bodies, as far as she could see, none with the slightest bit of fat. The four were relaxed and confident and had the eye of many girls in the tavern. 

Checking herself out, she wished she’d taken the time to buy a new outfit before coming here. Not that others weren’t in as bad a state as she was, but she wanted to make a good impression. Cleavage? Lots. No stains on her shirt or skirt? No. She was good to go. Hopefully there was nothing in her teeth. Then again, she hadn’t eaten today. Oh oh. Her breath might be horrible. It probably was. Damn. But it as too late. She was already standing before them. 

Tall, dark and handsome looked over his shoulder and gave her a warm smile that melted her belly and made her knees weak. “Hi there. Can I help you?”

Oh yes, you surely could. “Hi. My name’s Marian. I was wondering if you guys were looking for a new member for your party. I’m a magic user.”

“Mm. Sorry. We are, but you’re probably not what we’re looking for.”

Oh no. I’m not losing out on this one too. There was too much hot guy at stake. “I’m a dragon sorceress. Above average in mana. I just had myself tested.”

“Hey, that’s great, but—“

“Ok, I know I’m more of a power mage, not a wizard, but I can still learn regular spells. And I just bought these.” She fingered the earring in her right ear. “Mana wells. I have a huge reservoir.”

He looked awkward and glanced at his fellows, who seemed to be sharing some joke.

Marian almost frowned but quickly turned it into a determined smile and turned on the charm. “Ok, maybe you guys are higher level than I am, but I’ve got power, I don’t mind sleeping rough when need be, I have enough money to take care of myself—“

“Look,” he kindly interrupted, even more awkward now. “It’s not your ability or, um, class. I just don’t think you’d fit in with us, exactly.”

Now she started to frown. “Why? What’s wrong with me? Am I fat or something? Ugly? Is it an all boys club or what?”

“Yeah. Kinda.”

“Huh. Seriously? You don’t like girls?”

All four chuckled and it was starting to piss her off. But he leaned forward and spoke quietly. “We’re all gay. And we’re kind of only looking to recruit the same.”

A bottomless pit opened beneath her feet. Into it fell her dignity and all her hopes and dreams. Her faith in men. Because why both having faith anymore when all the sexiest men alive were polishing each other’s swords and had absolutely no interest in your well, well-above-average tits?

She would have been more openly embarrassed but the disappointment was greater. “Ok. Sorry to bother you.” She barely had the will to smile before turning her back to the four. Suddenly, she was tired, her feet were sore, and she was so hungry she could eat…something. She found an empty table and sank onto a stool. Elbows on the table, she put her face in her hands and massaged. She needed food. And a stiff drink. 

A server swung by and took her order for whatever chicken dish was being served and a white wine. She almost cancelled the wine, recalling that a good part of her energy drain was likely due to ongoing blood loss. She sighed. Had that all happened only last night? Tracing the imaginary line on her throat where the knife had been, she wondered if she’d ever stop thinking of it. A shudder made her look up. 

And see an anxious, somewhat geeky woman of about thirty five standing over the table and a guy about her own age behind her. That male, for what it was worth, was fully absorbed in her Marian’s tits. 

The woman wore a navy blue witches hat and a black robe with a plain longword belted to her side. Vast, round-framed glasses took up much of her face, though the lenses weren’t thick. Perhaps they were for style, perhaps for field of vision. She had freckles on her nose, brown hair and green eyes. Her nervous smile and hunched shoulders were almost out of place with her enthusiastic, if hesitant tone. “Hello there! I am so, so sorry to bother you. My name is Ravellis. This here is one of the members of my party, Jax.”

“Nice to meet you.” Now that Marian had sat down, she’d lost much of her earlier positivity and didn’t really feel like meeting and conversing with anyone. She wondered if she should just say so rather get into a discussion that would take too much energy.

The witch licked her lips, hesitated, then sat in the stood next to Marian. “Again, sorry. It’s just, I believe we heard that you’re looking to join a party?”

A mixture of interest and wariness rose in Marian. She would like to join a party, of course. But with these two? The woman looked ready to jump out of her skin if one of the servers so much as dropped a glass nearby. The young man was scrawny, was still staring at her tits, and didn’t have the most intelligent expression on his face. Given the choice, she’d prefer to team up with effective adventurers, not…well, losers was a pretty judgemental term. And it wasn’t fair to judge someone without meeting them, right? She nodded. “You’re looking for a third to join you?”

She looked flustered at that. “Oh, actually, there are two more of us. They aren’t here right now.” She waved, looking a touch evasive. Then she beamed. “I don’t know if you guessed but I’m a sword-witch. Not a sandwich. Ha. Sorry, bad joke. Anyways, I’m a mix of melee and spellcasting. It’s a bit of a unique class.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“I invented it myself.” She chuckled self deprecatingly. “Or I think I did. Anyways, Jax here is a fighter. He hasn’t chosen a speciality yet. The other two members of our party are an alchemist and a sage.”

“That’s…a diverse group.”

She looked apologetic. “Odd. Yes, I know. We’ve heard it all. Truth is, we’re something of a misfit group. And we’re definitely lacking in classical healing and offence. So it’s been difficult to find anyone willing to join up with us. I mean, we have some healing. Our alchemist can already brew mid grade healing potions, among other things. And I do provide some offence, but…did I hear you say you’re a sorceress?”

“Yes, I am.”

The witch sat up and glanced appreciatively at her friend, then back at Marian. “Oh, we’d just love to have you. Someone with your power would really help us in our adventuring.”

Marian rubbed the back of her neck and tried to think. “I don’t know. To be honest, I was teamed up with someone until today and we had a bad split. I came here looking for a new party, but I’m kind of having second thoughts.” She realized how that might be taken and rushed to follow up. ‘Sorry! I don’t mean it has anything to do with you.”

Ravellis waved good naturedly. “Oh, it’s fine. We’re used to rejection.”

Jax, however, looked much more disappointed that he wasn’t going to have Marian’s breasts in the party.

The witch didn’t appear to be one to give up easily. She hesitated, then tried again. “We can understand that you’re still deciding what you want to do with your future. I understand, I do. But would you be inclined just to help us out for a single day? Do one quest with us and see how it goes? Maybe you’d prefer to adventure on your own or find someone else, that’s totally fine. No hard feelings. But even one day with some real damage dealing would be a huge help to us. It’s, uh…” 

She looked away for a moment and Marian could have sworn the woman was about to break into tears, and that it wasn’t an act, despite her somewhat flamboyant manner and persistence. 

But when Ravellis turned back, her eyes were only a touch red. “It does get a bit difficult to support ourselves sometimes. With us not being as competitive as other teams and unable to take on the more dangerous jobs.” She pulled away and made another awkward smile. “I’m sorry, again. I’m babbling. And annoying you when you’ve obviously had a hard day.” She hastily stood, half tripping over her stool. “Come, Jax. Let’s leave her alone. And stop staring!” She smacked him on the shoulder.

They were awkward and silly and probably terrible adventurers. But Marian raised her voice anyway. “Wait.”

They stopped and turned their heads. 

A sigh escaped Marian’s lips. “One day? Tomorrow?”

The woman’s face brightened so fast it must have hurt. And she really did tear up a little. She rushed over and shook Marian’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you so much. It’ll be a good day. Everyone’s so sweet, I promise.”

“Should we meet here?” she asked. 

“Sure. Of course, if that works for you.” Ravellis hastily bobbed her head. “What time works for you?”

“Um, maybe nine? Sorry, I was badly injured last night and I really do need some sleep to recover.”

“That’s fine! I’m sure we can find a job that will fit the time we have. Thank you so much for agreeing. It means so much.”

At this point, she was beginning to feel really awkward. Just how desperate were these poor folk? Well, Jax may be a stereotype, but Ravellis seemed nice enough under all that nervousness. She said goodbye and the pair moved off just as the server brought Marian’s food. 

She dug in and almost died because it was so good. Not that it was a great dish, she was just that starved. She inhaled the dish and ordered a second plate. And on second thought, chose not to drink the wine, opting for water instead. 

Because tomorrow, she was going adventuring. She smiled to herself. 

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